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Waiting for Godot: The enduring mystery of Samuel Beckett's most famous play

Druid’s production of the play will go on show at The Abbey this month.

I’m glad to see you back. I thought you were gone forever.
Source: DruidTheatre/YouTube

SAMUEL BECKETT’S FAMED 1940s tragicomedy Waiting For Godot is about… well, what is it about?

It’s a play about two men – one having terrible trouble with his shoes, the other having terrible trouble with his prostate – who are waiting in a barren landscape near a single tree.

It’s a play about two men – called Vladimir and Estragon – who are waiting for a Godot who never comes; a play about two men who meet, while they’re waiting, two other men.

It’s a play where the same thing happens in the first half of the play and the second half.

It’s a mystery, an enigma wrapped in a riddle. Or maybe it just is what it is.

There are many interpretations – some say the men are lovers, others say they are friends. Some say the ‘Godot’ is God, others that he is a character who appears in the play.

Beckett himself said that if he had meant ‘Godot’ to mean ‘God’, he’d have said God.

‘I wasn’t sure the world needed another Godot’

For Garry Hynes, Irish theatre director and artistic director of Druid Theatre, when it came to their latest production of Godot (which will arrive on the Abbey Theatre stage this month), it wasn’t about trying to figure out ‘what it all means’ when they began work on it.

Instead, it was about being true to the words that Beckett penned.

Roscommon native Hynes has had a long and interesting career. She, the late Mick Lally and Marie Mullen formed the Druid theatre company in 1975, aiming to move Irish theatre away from being so Dublin-centric. Druid helped to foster the arts in Galway, and went on to grow an impressive international reputation.

Hynes is a Tony award winner, and one of Irish theatre’s most impressive figures.

But when the Druid team approached her with the idea of doing a new production of Godot, she wasn’t sure it was the best idea. “It was before we did the six months of DruidShakespeare,” she recalls. “I could see the logic. But I wasn’t sure the world needed another production of Waiting for Godot.”

It was during the process of making DruidShakespeare (an ambitious six-hour production of four of Shakespeare’s plays) that she realised “it seemed like a good idea” to tackle Beckett’s famous play, and they proceeded to schedule a run for two weeks in the Mick Lally Theatre.

And it worked.

For Hynes, sitting down to work on Godot meant nothing “other than to try and understand it and make it real”.

“It’s regarded a masterpiece in a way that feels a little bit off-putting, and that it’s hard to get inside it,” she says. But they approached it in the most natural way possible: as Beckett wanted it.

“So we have been entirely faithful to his stage direction,” she explains.

We used a copy of the German production that he directed back in the 60s, and tried to understand the various things he asked. But at the end of the day the trick is to trust it for what it is. It is about two guys waiting for someone at the side of the road.

Hynes points out she’s seen a number of different productions of the play over the past decade, and not all of them have “emotionally moved me”.

“I think if you go with idea of bringing something new to it you will inevitably fail,” she cautions.

“It’s new because it only exists in the moment – I think if you try to construct things on top of a play you are being too clever by half.”

What draws her to Beckett?

“To me, I recognised him, I recognised his Irishness, I recognised the John Millington Synge in him. I think that these plays could have come from nowhere except an imaginary Irish landscape, even though he was writing in French and writing them in France.”

Druid Final Image for Godot

A major wake-up call

Beckett never intended Godot to be performed by women – in the early 1990s, an all-female cast had to go to court to be allowed perform the play, but a letter of objection from the playwright’s representative had to be read out before each show.

In 2015, a rude awakening was delivered to the Irish theatre scene in the form of Waking the Feminists, a movement which drew attention to gender imbalance in the industry.

“It was a major wake-up call,” is what Hynes calls this time. While she isn’t necessarily saying she’s going to try and stage an all-woman Godot, it did affect how she felt about the theatre world she’s been so involved in.

“It was a pretty essential moment and it reminded me and all of us in Druid, and those of us in the profession, that we need to do more. And we had to do more and we are doing more, and we are doing that job now – and it was an essential moment.”

It’s been over 40 years since Druid was set up, four decades in which the Irish social and artistic landscape has gone through many changes. Has Druid succeeded in helping to showing theatre can flourish across the country, from villages to cities?

“I think there has been a lot done but there still is a whole area of audiences outside Dublin, and particularly not in the big cities,” says Hynes.

“We in Druid, we passionately believe that you have a right to see plays in your own community and not to have to travel outside that community, and that is what we have been trying to to do with our touring programme.”

For her, it is important that theatre “is community-related rather than [related to] the big town”. So there have been many surreal moments as Druid’s reputation has grown since those early days in the 1970s.

“If you do stop to look back[,] there are moments – when you get Tony awards, or you work on Broadway and you arrive in Boston and you see Druid’s name in lights. There are moments that remind you… [but] most of the time we don’t stop.”

It’s simply on to the next performance.

“What’s most extraordinary about it is that Druid still lives, 40 years on,” says Hynes.

Waiting for Godot runs at The Abbey Theatre from 21 April – 20 May.

Read: A new exhibition shines the spotlight on Pablo Picasso’s ‘forgotten’ first wife for the first time>

Read: “How slowly… Love, Sam”: Read Beckett’s intriguing postcards to his friends>

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